ACLU Says Senate Hearing Marks Buildup To New Attack on Gay and Lesbian Families

September 4, 2003 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – As a Senate subcommittee convened a hearing on federal legislation that permitted states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages, the American Civil Liberties Union today strongly urged Congress not to amend the Constitution to further deprive millions of gay and lesbian families of their most fundamental rights.

“”Congress long ago limited the ability of gay and lesbian couples to be full participants in American society, but the proposed constitutional amendment makes previous measures look tame,”” said Christopher E. Anders, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “”The proposed constitutional amendment would be the legal equivalent of a nuclear bomb. It would wipe out every single law protecting gay and lesbian families and other unmarried couples.””

In recent months, some lawmakers proposed a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between a man and a woman and prohibit the federal government and all states from conferring “”the legal incidents”” of marriage – including financial benefits, medical decisions, insurance coverage – on unmarried couples. The ACLU said that this language would deprive the families of lesbians and gays – and other unmarried couples – all legal protections for their relationships by overriding any federal or state constitutional protections and federal, state and local laws.

The controversial measure had drawn criticism from both sides of the political aisle. Former Congressman Bob Barr, the author of the Defense of Marriage Act, raised similar concerns in a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post. And during the election, vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney said that, “”people should be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to enter into.””

Enacted in 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act already permits states to refuse to recognize same-sex unions performed by other states. Although many critics claim that this violates the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution, no court has found the law unconstitutional. Additionally, the law codified for the first time the federal definition of marriage and spouse – and thus bars gay and lesbian couples from accessing federal benefits offered to married couples.

The issue of same-sex unions has come under greater scrutiny due to recent advances in the area of gay and lesbian rights. In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court, though not specifically addressing same-sex unions, held in Lawrence v. Texas that sodomy statutes were unconstitutional. And the Massachusetts Supreme Court is expected to soon rule on the validity of same-sex unions in that state. Just yesterday, the California Legislature adopted legislation that gives same-sex unions many of the same legal rights as married couples.

“”The constitutional amendments that have been adopted over the last 230 years are the source of the greatest protections for individual liberty and civil rights,”” the ACLU’s Anders said. “”The federal marriage amendment, by contrast, would deny gay and lesbian families even the few protections granted by state and local governments.””

The ACLU’s letter to the Senate on this issue can be seen at:
/node/20819

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